Student Voices: Melissa George
Rwanda: A Journey of Growth and Discovery
This summer I was given the opportunity to learn more about the beautiful country of Rwanda and spend two weeks exploring it. I had never been on a plane or out of the country, but I did not let that stop me nor quell my excitement. I knew this was my chance. The twenty-eight hour journey there was tedious and dreadful, but as soon as we landed in Kigali, I was instantly revitalized. The air smelled like burned wood; it was full of warmth. The first few days of our trip, we remained in Kigali. Every morning I ate outside, surrounded by exquisite plant life. I was filled with a sense of peace and purpose that I have never felt. We traveled around the country in an eighteen-passenger van. Driving anywhere in Rwanda is a great experience. It is known as the “Land of a Thousand Hills,” which I think is an underestimate. A motto of the trip both physically and emotionally became “If you are not going up, you are going down.”
The first overwhelming experience I had occurred during a day in Kigali. We went to a huge open-air market with hundreds of vendors selling everything from crafts to fabric to ginger to dried fish. We were the only white people there; vendors were fighting for our attention. Around every corner, you could hear someone yell, “Muzungu!” (a Kinyarwanda non-derogatory term for white people). I was experiencing sensory overload; I wanted to look at everything and talk to everyone. I was finally able to calm myself and started to talk to a few vendors. They were so genuinely happy and friendly. In Kigali we also visited a co-op called Armaho, which was made of genocide and AIDS widows. The women were amazing. They welcomed us with song and dance and gave us a tour of their beautiful work. This was one of many examples of the strength and determination of Rwandans. My heart was so warmed by these women. Their smiles were contagious.
Another beautiful experience was being able to go to a Forgiveness School and visit
with children. Perpetrators and victims of the genocide send their children and grandchildren
to these schools. We were welcomed again with song and dance by the students. After
helping them plant some flowers around the school, we split up and went into each
classroom; we were supposed to teach them something new. I ended up alone in a class
of about sixty bright-eyed first graders who spoke no English. As they stared at me
with big, bright smiles, I froze. I spoke almost no Kinyarwanda. On a quick whim,
I decided to teach them a few dances. First I showed them “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.” They mastered it and could do it flawlessly. I then showed
them the Chicken Dance. I will
never forget the sound of their giggles as I demonstrated how to do it. Seeing a room full of children do the Chicken Dance is one of my favorite memories. After we left the classroom, we were treated with a huge meal from the parish of the school. I was so humbled by the wonderful hospitality we were showed. When we left the school a few kids were dancing for their friends.
In Kigali we also were able to go to the National History Museum and see Intori dancing. It was a beautiful traditional dance featuring men dressed in long pink skirts and women wearing bright red dresses. The dance was amazing. It help me feel so much closer to the culture of Rwandans.We were lucky enough to travel throughout the country and had the opportunity to spend a few nights in a game park and go on a safari. We traveled near the border of Tanzania to Akagara, a national park. Driving there I spotted some giraffes in between some bushes and everyone was excited. We were in Land Rovers and spent most of the bumpy ride standing up, keeping a lookout for whatever animals we could see. We spent the entire day driving around looking for animals; we were able to see water buffalo, zebras, deer, and an elephant. The elephant was just hanging out in water, eating and spraying itself with water. It was so much fun riding around on safari.
The trip would not have been complete without very sobering moments. We visited several genocide memorials. We went to the National Genocide Memorial in Kigali, a western style memorial, like the Holocaust Museum. The hardest aspect of it for me was the wing dedicated to the children who were slaughtered in the genocide. The room was filled with children’s pictures with facts about them and how they died. I have never felt so helpless, powerless, or sorrowful in my entire life. This was one of the hardest moments of the trip for me. We also went to two churches, Nyamata and Ntarma, which had been turned into memorials. These were more Rwandan styled memorials. Thousands of people that tried to seek refugee in the churches were mercilessly killed. The belongings of the victims were left in the churches. Benches were covered in clothes and personal belongs were left in the front of the churches. We were able to see actual identity cards, which decided who lived and who died. It was almost impossible to comprehend how much those cards meant. The outside of the churches was lined with mass graves. I will never forget being at those sites.
This trip showed me the resiliency of the human spirit. Our translator John survived the genocide, while some in his family did not. To this day he still bears the scars of an event that happened when he was just six years old. Despite this, he was still able to go with us to these memorials and comfort us when we cried. He and every Rwandan I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting showed me the value of human rights and the importance of taking a stand for what is right. Rwanda is the most beautiful place I have ever seen and I will never forget its mountains, people, or its scars.
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